Does the Medium Matter?
Does the Medium Matter?
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter begins by reviewing arguments evaluating whether television is unique as a medium of political communication. It analyzes whether any of these same effects occur in response to incivility in political discourse that reaches audiences through other media. Although in-your-face politics has been framed as a theory about the effects of television, incivility in political discourse can also occur on the radio, and at times even within newspapers. Furthermore, the Internet has become a particular locus of concern with respect to the civility of political discourse in recent years. Questioning whether in-your-face politics is tied to the emergence of television is important for purposes of understanding the potential historical importance of in-your-face politics.
Having demonstrated several effects of televised in-your-face politics, the logical next question in my mind was whether these effects were specific to television. Could other media such as radio or newspapers produce some of these same effects? Thus far in this book, I have framed in-your-face politics as a theory about the effects of television, but incivility in political discourse can obviously occur on the radio, to be sure, and at times even within newspapers. Furthermore, the Internet has become a particular locus of concern with respect to the civility of political discourse in recent years.
Of course, there is no analogue to the close-up camera perspective in these other media, although newspapers can carry photographs, and radio can be used to convey a sense of intimacy as well. To what extent are the effects of in-your-face politics tied to the emergence of television? This is an important question for understanding the mechanisms underlying the effects, but it is even more important for purposes of understanding the potential historical importance of in-your-face politics. If uncivil political discourse is simply business as usual in American politics, then the effects of in-your-face politics have been with us for a very long time. However, if it matters how American citizens are exposed to incivility, then what people experience now may indeed be quite different from in the past, even if the level of incivility in political discourse has not changed at all.
To explore this question, I begin by reviewing arguments evaluating whether television is, indeed, unique as a medium of political communication. Then I turn to the same experimental paradigm used in Chapters 2, 3, and 4 to explore whether any of these same effects occur (p.154) in response to incivility in political discourse that reaches audiences through other media. My results confirm that television is uniquely powerful in conveying emotional intensity; this capacity translates into important differences between how audiences understand conflictual political discourse via audiovisual media versus through other media. Finally, I draw on these findings to explain the widespread perceptions of decline in civil political life in America.
What’s Special About Television?
It is commonplace to claim that the advent of television fundamentally changed everything about how American politics is conducted. Among academic researchers, however, that hyperbolic claim was dropped soon after the rise of television news. The political content of television turned out to be not all that different from what newspapers covered, although television news necessarily covered less material given its time constraints. By the mid-1970s, questions also were raised about whether this supposedly all-powerful visual medium was really so influential after all. Patterson and McClure’s seminal book, The Unseeing Eye: The Myth of Television Power in National Politics, casts further doubt on the distinctiveness of television, arguing that the mythological status of television far exceeded its actual impact.1
In Part I of this book, I documented several different kinds of effects from in-your-face politics, so it is important to consider what role, if any, a specific medium might play in each of them. Interestingly, past theories linking declining political trust to media have not specified television per se as the cause. Instead, theories originally about “videomalaise” were broadened into more general claims about effects of political journalism, claims that transcend television, newspapers, and virtually all political media. For example, some have suggested that negative commentary from journalists naturally leads members of the public to think ill of politicians and the system in which they are embedded.2 Journalistic narratives emphasizing the ulterior, self-interested motives of political actors also have been widely blamed for public negativity. The shift toward general theories of “mediamalaise” does not mean that television has been given (p.155) a complete reprieve from its putative responsibility for all that ails American politics. Instead, the argument has evolved to blame television journalism for initiating the deleterious shifts in tone and content that subsequently spread to other political media. Because of the need to compete with television, print media began to mimic television’s tone, at least so the argument goes.3 Whatever the rationale, few scholars have contended that political television, as it currently exists, presents a unique perspective on government and politics.
The few exceptions are studies suggesting that television, by virtue of its visual nature, draws attention to certain dimensions of candidate evaluation over others. As one journalist summarized, “Television makes the candidate of today a human being at one’s elbow, who is going to be judged on the same terms as a man greets any new acquaintance.”4 The sensory realism of television is also widely believed to convey a sense of intimacy with political actors that citizens were unlikely to encounter in the past, even in face-to-face meetings with politicians.5
Nonetheless, evidence of television’s unique impact has proved elusive. For example, content analyses have repeatedly suggested that television and print media present very similar information about candidates.6 Moreover, perceptions of candidates’ personal qualities do not vary based on people’s sources of information,7 although there is some evidence that candidate appearance influences vote choice among the uninformed.8
Despite the fact that television is by now considered an “old medium,” scholars have only begun to understand the consequences of the fact that political candidates and advocates of political ideas appear on television as actual human beings rather than as a series of disembodied words or voices. The sense of personal intimacy that viewers have with people appearing on television is obvious at one level, but research to date has not explored how and why it matters if these people appear to be physically proximate human beings to their citizen-viewers.
Research within social psychology confirms that print and pictures are indeed processed differently: “Differences in the processing of pictures and words emanate from the physical similarity of pictures, but not words, to the referents.”9 Print is the preferred mode of communication for both psychologically and spatially distant referents, whereas (p.156) pictures are preferred for things that are spatially close and concrete.10 Likewise, things we can see with our own eyes tend to be processed as if they were spatially and psychologically close.11 Psychologists suggest that this occurs because, audiovisual media notwithstanding, most things humans can see are, indeed, spatially close, making this specialization highly adaptive outside the world of media: “Pictures thus impart a sense of closeness to the referent objects … whereas words do not convey proximity.”12
Interestingly, evidence suggests that different kinds of distance—social, psychological, temporal, and spatial—are linked in the human mind.13 It is no mere accident that “long ago and far away” seem to fit together much better than “long ago and nearby.” Likewise, different conceptions of distance can influence one another such that targets thought to be far away are also perceived to be more psychologically distant.14 Sensitivity to physical distance information is thought to be most basic because it is “built into the design and function of the human brain,” and then becomes the basis for understanding other kinds of distance as well.15 Interestingly, politeness is also greater when addressing a spatially distant rather than a proximate target.16
Thus far, research on what is unique about television relative to other media has been limited to the extent to which televised politics heightens the importance of certain kinds of information over others. For example, perceptions of candidates’ personal qualities were found to be no different based on which medium people used, but personal qualities were more important to voters who obtained political news from television.17 Another study suggested that television primes people to rely more on personality perceptions when evaluating candidates.18
In the case of in-your-face politics, however, I explicitly argue that television’s effects are not due to differences in the political content provided by one medium versus another, but rather differences in how audiences experience that content. Precisely because watching, more so than reading, feels more like being there, people may internalize expectations from the world of face-to-face discourse to a greater extent with television than with other media. Thus television’s violations of norms of civility may be experienced more acutely and uncomfortably than they would be in print.
(p.157) Would trust in politics and politicians improve if the public simply did not witness so much uncivil political disagreement in video form? By creating an impression of closer proximity, I suggest that televised political disagreements exacerbate the “intensification of feeling” that Walter Lippmann so despised in politics.19 This theory offers an entirely different rationale for why incivility may intensify negative attitudes toward government and politicians.
In the experiments in Part I, I examined the impact of televised examples of uncivil political discourse. I did so for three reasons. First, although incivility is not limited to television, television is still the dominant medium through which citizens are exposed to political controversy. Second, and more important, I chose television because its images and sounds more accurately mimic conflict as experienced in interpersonal situations. These visuals contain a lot of information about social relations between speakers, and between speakers and viewers.20 Because visuals focus attention on primitive social cues, political television’s violations of the usual social rules should be especially salient. Third, these social cues are easily and effortlessly communicated in visuals, without changing the political content of a program. This makes television especially likely to generate reactions even among inattentive audiences: “Pictures, because they look like the things they represent, require less mental effort to translate between referent and reality. Pictures give information that is more familiar and easy to process.”21
Of course, just because televised incivility seems especially likely to generate reactions based on violations of social rules does not mean that other media could not also do so. Whether such effects are specific to televised exposure to incivility is a complex question. For example, a print version of this same program—even a direct transcript—might not be perceived as demonstrating the same extent of incivility as the television program, in which viewers witnessed nonverbal and paralinguistic cues such as Bob sneering at Neil, and Neil shaking his head ruefully while Bob was speaking. In a study manipulating civility versus incivility using print manipulations, Funk found results in the general direction one would expect, but the effects were not statistically significant.22 Interestingly, she predicted that this null finding would have been significant had she (p.158) used televised variations in civility, although she was not able to test this hypothesis.
Overall, the theoretical framework I have offered suggests that television is likely to exacerbate effects of incivility, even if this effect is not necessarily limited to televised incivility. It seems doubtful, for example, that reading about a heated political controversy in the newspaper would cause the same extent of heightened physiological arousal as watching that same conflict on television. It is also plausible that only television causes the in-your-face paradox: what rankles viewers about watching incivility on television is a sense of close proximity to uncivil conflict rarely found in untelevised life. Despite the fact that most viewers might acknowledge, at a purely cognitive level, that incivility is the norm for televised political debate, viewers react as if norms are being violated.
The Cross-Media Incivility Experiment
In order to evaluate whether the medium matters when it comes to the effects of political incivility, I created print, radio, and television versions of civil and uncivil political exchanges. I began with the television talk shows used in the earlier experiments. Given that I already had civil and uncivil versions of the exact same televised political discourse, I used these as the basis for producing civil and uncivil radio and newspaper versions. For the radio version, I used the soundtrack from the videos and played them for participants using a combination radio/cassette deck.
Producing print versions of the very same civil and uncivil exchanges was somewhat more challenging. As a template, the debate transcript format used by the New York Times was emulated in order to avoid the need to construct a news story about the debate that would deviate more from the actual event. A news story, for example, would entail journalistic selectivity with respect to what to emphasize as well as omission of some of the material. If a newspaper printed only a few highlights of the exchange, or commented directly on the tone of the exchange, then it would be difficult to assess whether the medium itself or this additional commentary was the cause of any cross-media differences. (p.159)
To avoid the possibility that variations in political content might account for any observed effects, the entire civil and uncivil versions of the debate were transcribed word for word in their entirety, as illustrated in Figure 7.1. The exchange was printed on newsprint and formatted in columns exactly as previous presidential debate transcripts have been printed in the New York Times. In this case the newspaper (as indicated at the top of the printed page) was the Indianapolis Star, an appropriate newspaper of record for a congressional race in the state of Indiana. Photographs of the two candidates (two still images from the television program) were also included in the story so that the candidates’ physical appearances were held constant.
It is important to consider what can and cannot be made “equal” in a cross-media experiment of this kind. Video footage inevitably includes information that goes beyond the specific words that are spoken. There is information to be gleaned from details of the room in which the participants are seated, the candidates’ dress, their body language, how they are oriented toward each other spatially, their facial expressions, and so forth. In this sense it is impossible to perfectly equate the television version of the exchange with the radio (p.160) and print versions. Likewise, the radio version includes voice cues that could alter listeners’ interpretations of the political content.
Because these differences are essential to what is different about experiencing political discourse via one medium versus another, they were necessarily included when manipulating cross-media differences. As a result of characteristics inherent in these media, television viewers are exposed to more nuances of facial expression than are radio listeners; and because of radio’s unique characteristics, listeners are exposed to tone of voice cues that are not accessible to those experiencing the same exchange via print.
Combining civil and uncivil versions of the newspaper, radio, and television versions produced a three by two factorial design with six possible experimental conditions. Around one hundred subjects were randomly assigned with equal probability to this between-subjects design. As in the previous studies, subjects were brought into the laboratory one by one to answer pretest questions before exposure to the stimulus, followed by a posttest questionnaire.
Notably, although the civil and uncivil treatments of the televised version had been validated as different through manipulation checks in several prior experiments, the civil and uncivil treatments of the radio and print versions had not been previously validated. Thus as a first step I analyzed the same posttest index of perceived civility/incivility discussed in the original manipulation check in Chapter 2. To reiterate, this index tapped the extent to which discourse was perceived to be calm-agitated, hostile-friendly, rude-polite, and so forth, and it created a highly reliable index in this sample as before.
However, when I attempted to validate the civil-uncivil treatment with the index of perceived civility-incivility, the results were problematic. As shown in Figure 7.2, the manipulation check findings from the previous television versions of the experiment replicated nicely in this experiment with the uncivil condition perceived as significantly more uncivil than the civil one. But the civil and uncivil radio versions were only borderline significant with respect to perceived differences in the extent of incivility (p = .10), and the newspaper versions were nowhere near significantly different in perceived levels of incivility. In short, the manipulation check demonstrated that the civility manipulation was working as intended only in the case of television. (p.161)
Although it was not my original intent to study the relative effectiveness of these experimental treatments by medium, this finding was quite fascinating. Apparently the civil/uncivil treatment was being carried by the tone of voice and visuals of the candidates, not by the words that they uttered. In the condition where participants read the exchange in a newspaper, there were no detectable differences in civility whatsoever between the two conditions. This suggests, above and beyond a failed manipulation check, that the same political content would not be viewed as the same by audiences who experienced it via different media. In other words, a newspaper account of the same event would probably not come across as equally uncivil, nor would a radio version.
Furthermore, Figure 7.2 also suggests that the main differences by medium in perceived civility versus incivility occur because of the uncivil conditions. In other words, the three civil conditions are roughly equal across the three media, but the three uncivil conditions are different in the extent of perceived incivility with television producing the greatest perceptions of incivility, followed by radio and then by newspaper. Given the importance of facial expression in perceiving and interpreting emotions, this is not surprising. The same (p.162) statement without facial cues and/or voice tone simply does not come across the same way.
Taking a historical perspective, this finding suggests that when audiences received their news about conflicting political views strictly from print media, they were unlikely to perceive the same level of hostility as they are now when most such information comes to audiences via television. In one sense then, it does not matter whether today’s politics and politicians are any more uncivil than they ever were. Even if they act the same as they always have and say the same things, the audience will perceive them as more uncivil. By virtue of the audiovisual cues that television provides, audience members are privy to more of the emotional content of political discourse than they were before.
Of course, by virtue of forcing the candidates/actors to stick to the same basic script and voice the same issue positions, they were artificially constrained in ways that are not true in the real world. It is possible to imagine, for example, a different version of the newspaper version of this debate in which the words themselves carried more emotional content and the writing was such that the reader could better discern the level of emotional intensity in an exchange. Historians have observed that the development of the “modern newspaper” brought with it a change in writing style that has been described as moving from the highly descriptive account with “Hollywood’s exaggerated touch” to a dry, boring account of who said what to whom.23 Without any interpretive commentary, it seems unlikely that incivility in political discourse would register in news audiences’ minds, except in the most extreme cases such as a story about a political duel or physical confrontation. Barring situations in which the story was focused on incivility as its topic, it seems unlikely that readers would perceive high levels of incivility in a written account of any given political confrontation.
Since the uncivil versions of the radio and newspaper coverage did not survive the manipulation check, it made little sense to look for differences in levels of political trust and other outcomes by incivility condition. Nonetheless, a lingering question remained: if newspaper coverage did, indeed, convey heightened incivility, would this medium produce the same kinds of consequences that uncivil (p.163) television does? Granted, this manipulation might be far harder to accomplish in print, but do the consequences of in-your-face politics require actual faces and thus depend on television per se?
Can Newspapers Produce In-your-face Effects?
In order to answer this question, the print stimulus materials needed to be revised. To produce print versions that differed in levels of perceived civility, I sacrificed some experimental control over the political content of the discussions. Although the candidates retained the same issue positions as in the televised versions, they responded to one another more strenuously in words than in the original versions, and there were more cues for readers as to the tone of the exchange. This was accomplished by altering both versions of the text to emphasize either incivility or civility. First and foremost, in order to avoid making the candidates’ issue positions more extreme, the moderator’s comments were used in the print version to call attention to the nature of the interaction. For example, in the new, more extreme uncivil print version, the moderator makes reference to mudslinging and the fact that the candidates are shaking their fists at one another. At another point he references the need to “cool the discussion down a bit.”
In addition to direct references by the moderator to the tension (or lack thereof) in the exchange, the candidates’ language was also altered to sound more severe. For the example, the “huge price tag” attributed to NASA in the original uncivil version became a “ridiculously high price tag” in the extremely hostile version. More extreme modifiers, such as “absolutely,” “extremely,” and “definitely,” were added to their language. A candidate described by his opponent as “wrong” about an issue in the original version was now “completely and utterly wrong” in the enhanced account. Direct accusations were also made in the extra-hostile version. For example, Neil exclaims, “You are not being honest, Bob!” and Bob accuses Neil of interrupting him in midsentence.
In contrast, the extremely civil version was revised so that the candidates went out of their way to acknowledge the other candidate (p.164) and his views. For example, Bob begins a defense of his own position by saying, “Neil’s points are well taken, but… .” Neil likewise asserts that they have “the same goals in mind.” They compliment one another on minor points, and emphasize general areas of agreement, via statements such as “Bob and I obviously agree that we need to protect those most vulnerable” and “These are complex questions.” By making the uncivil version more uncivil and the civil version even more civil, my hope was to obtain a significant manipulation check for the civil versus uncivil newspaper versions and thus be able to answer the question of whether incivility—if adequately perceived in sources other than television—would produce the same salutary and harmful effects.
With the newly strengthened newspaper versions in hand, I initiated yet another experiment, this time trimmed down to the four conditions formed by crossing newspapers versus television with extremely civil and extremely uncivil political exchanges. A total of 109 fresh participants were randomly assigned to these four conditions. Not surprisingly, the first order of business in analyzing the data was to determine whether the extremely civil and extremely uncivil versions were, in fact, perceived as significantly different from one another in the print and television versions.
As shown in Figure 7.3, the new newspaper versions accomplished my goal; the extremely civil and extremely uncivil print versions were now clearly significantly different from one another in levels of perceived incivility for both media. However, the revisions to the stimuli appear to have created a significant interaction as well. The civil-uncivil manipulation is now significantly stronger for the newspaper conditions than for the more subtle television ones. To be clear, the civil and uncivil means were significantly different for both media, just more so for newspapers. As a result, it is difficult to compare the size of the incivility effect from one medium to another. But it is at least possible—unlike in the previous experiment—to see whether uncivil discourse carried by newspapers produces any of the same effects.
I began by attempting to replicate the findings from Chapter 3 on attitudes toward the opposition. Was incivility damaging to how audiences felt about the opposition with print versions of incivility? (p.165)
The answer appears to be probably not. As shown in Figure 7.4, liking for the least liked candidate was significantly influenced by the extreme incivility treatment just as in the previous television-only experiments; in other words, the main effect of incivility was significant. However, this effect was driven almost entirely by the civil and uncivil television conditions, which produced a large gap in liking for the least liked candidate. A modest suggestion of a similar difference occurred between the civil and uncivil newspaper versions, but the newspaper means were not significantly different from one another as they were for the two television conditions. It is worth noting that this cannot be a result of a weaker manipulation of incivility in the newspaper conditions. As shown in Figure 7.3, the manipulation was significantly stronger for the newspaper versions than for the television ones. Nonetheless, television produced stronger effects. (p.166)
Next I attempted to replicate the effects of incivility on recall. As shown in Chapter 2, political content that was presented in an uncivil fashion tended to be better remembered than content presented in a civil fashion. For newspapers, however, I found no evidence of any significant difference in recall between the civil and uncivil conditions. Thus a second finding based on the emotional intensity of televised incivility failed to replicate for newspapers.
The final replication that I attempted involved the effects of incivility on political trust. Do print versions of uncivil political discourse produce less trust in government and politicians the same way that televised incivility appears to suppress levels of political trust? Figure 7.5 shows the results of this analysis. Here, at last, there is some evidence that incivility does have a parallel effect for newspapers. Both the television and print uncivil conditions were significantly lower in trust than the corresponding civil conditions. Moreover, the much larger gap for newspaper conditions seems to reflect the much larger difference in perceived incivility levels between these two conditions.
(p.167) What does this overall pattern of findings suggest? The effects of incivility on outcomes such as recall and the intensity of emotional reactions to those one does not like do not replicate well for newspapers. On the other hand, the effects of incivility on political trust appear to replicate well so long as the newspaper version adequately conveys incivility to its readers.
The reason for this discrepancy is likely to be differences in the process of influence that results in the effects in Chapters 2 and 3 (recall and legitimacy of the opposition) as opposed to those in Chapter 4 (political trust). The reason political trust declines after viewing uncivil political discourse on television or reading about uncivil political discourse in a newspaper is that readers and viewers find such shenanigans distasteful, and ask themselves why politicians can’t just act like ordinary people when it comes to discussing politics. Normal people would not shake their fists at one another or put each other down. I suspect that this particular form of influence is quite mindful; that is, if asked, experimental subjects in the uncivil conditions
(p.168) would probably indicate that the politicians they watched behaved less than admirably. Although participants were not evaluating those particular politicians when answering the political trust questions, their bad behavior reminded audiences that politicians and government seem to operate outside the bounds of the social rules that govern the lives of ordinary people.
In contrast to this highly cognitive process of influence, I suspect that the effects of incivility on recall and on the intensity of people’s dislike for the opposition operate below the level of individual awareness. In other words, the increased arousal produced by incivility is not something audiences are cognizant of; nonetheless, arousal heightens their level of attention to content and intensifies their emotions. Newspapers are simply less likely to produce this same reaction and thus also less likely to produce consequences that flow from such heightened arousal.
Contrary to many popular impressions, television is a highly arousing medium. It provokes involuntary attention as well as a host of physiological responses indicative of heightened attention.24 It is precisely because of these arousal-producing qualities that television use is associated with sleep problems in both observational studies—where sleep problems are positively correlated with time spent viewing—and experimental studies, where reducing television viewing has been shown to reduce sleep disturbances in adolescents.25
It is difficult to envision a critical test of whether reading is generally less arousing than watching television given that so much would depend on the type of content being read/viewed. Should such a test compare reading the actors’ words to viewing them spoken on television, or a full description of the event relative to viewing the televised account? Or should the experiences be equated in length of time in addition to content? A spicy novel full of intrigue might well produce high levels of arousal, but congressional candidates—and indeed most political news content—is not of that ilk. One need only recall prominent exceptions, such as the Starr Report from the Clinton impeachment trial, to realize that most political content does not approach pulp fiction. In this particular experimental study, it is fairly uncontroversial to assume that television viewing of uncivil political conflict is more arousing than reading about it in a newspaper. Recall from the early chapters of this book that the (p.169) arousal-based effects occurred primarily when conflict was both uncivil and shown in close-up. Only under highly arousing conditions—circumstances that are not typically replicable with newspapers—will one find the effects that depend on arousal.
Why the Medium Matters
On the whole, my findings suggest that the arousal-related outcomes of in-your-face politics are probably television-dependent. They require heightened arousal to trigger higher levels of attention and recall, and emotional intensification of audience attitudes. Not all of the effects of in-your-face politics rely on television, however, as demonstrated by the fact that newspaper accounts of incivility, when extreme, may affect levels of political trust.
Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that producing a newspaper account of an event that includes enough cues so that readers comprehend that uncivil political discourse is transpiring is quite difficult. What this suggests is that given the occurrence of a particular political event involving a moderate degree of incivility, people reading about it in a newspaper would perceive the political participants as more civil than would those viewing the event on television. The combined facial expressions and tone of voice cues that are present only on television make this medium particularly well suited to conveying the emotional tenor of an exchange. When that tenor is uncivil, as frequently occurs in cases of partisan political conflict, incivility will be much more visible to audiences of television viewers than to newspaper readers. The exceptions will be cases where print reporters go out of their way to convey to their readers the incivility displayed by political advocates.
These findings are of particular importance when considered in historical perspective. Those who have in recent years decried the rise of uncivil political discourse are responding to an impression that many share, but for which there is little empirical evidence. It may or may not be the case that politicians today are less polite in their discourse than they were in the past. As historians are quick to point out, politics in the new American republic was hardly docile or polite.26
(p.170) And as I noted in passing in Chapter 1, when Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton dueled on the banks of the Hudson River, no one witnessed it in person. And even if there had been a reporter present, he would have struggled to provide a written account that could produce the same intensity of emotion as a video of the event. Today the American public has ringside seats to almost any political squabble, however minor. Moreover, because political news is no longer limited to a few evening news broadcasts, there is constant demand for new material.
Given that these effects appear to be specific to television, perhaps the effects of in-your-face politics are essentially a thing of the past, or at least on their way out. After all, the often proclaimed “death of television” and its replacement by the Internet suggests that the effects that I have documented could be irrelevant in the near future. Although broadcast television as we once knew it may be a thing of the past and cable boxes are probably not long for most living rooms, the kind of audiovisual content commonly referred to as “television” by the public is, if anything, more popular than ever. The content may reach our homes via streaming Internet, but the content is largely the same. Indeed, news content is increasingly similar across print, television, and Internet platforms.27
Thus the death of television is essentially a myth if what one means by this is that audiovisual content is going the way of the dodo. Television content is not disappearing so much as it is migrating to multiple platforms. What some refer to as “media convergence” refers to the tendency for content to be available on multiple platforms. Television programs can now be watched on computers via the Internet, and Internet content and movies can be streamed through one’s television. Digital content moves more or less effortlessly from one platform to the next, so when it comes to content, the distinction among television, movies, and the Internet is no longer meaningful.
There is little chance that digital audiovisual fare will disappear from our media environment anytime in the near future. There are, nonetheless, many changes afoot with implications for in-your-face (p.171) politics. Many of these developments suggest that the extent of in-your-face politics will expand in the coming decades, while other trends suggest perhaps some moderation of this phenomenon. I review these changes focusing first on the content of audiovisual online fare, and second on the nature of the viewing experience for audience members.
From its inception, the Internet has been a text-intensive medium. And as demonstrated earlier in this chapter, text is especially poor at transmitting a sense of incivility in political discourse. Even when text is strongly worded enough to convey incivility, it is unlikely to have the same extent of effects on its readers that uncivil video has on its viewers. This pattern would seem to suggest that the shift away from traditional television toward the Internet would produce less exposure to incivility.
However, a number of factors mitigate against the likelihood that incivility has or will decline due to the demise of traditional television as the major news source. First, as the speed of Internet connections has increased, the amount of video material online has grown, and the Internet has begun to look more like television. Although it is difficult to predict just how video-centric it will eventually become, technological capacity no long seems to be the issue. As studies document the effectiveness of video online, there is likely to be still more of it.28
By far the greatest reason to expect an exacerbation of uncivil political discourse online is rising competition for media audiences. When so many different sources, both online and offline, are all competing for the same audiences, any characteristic that draws attention is likely to become increasingly prominent and valuable. The availability of video on demand means that there are fewer captive audiences, and instead people have greater control over the content they see. Thus in-your-face content will continue to appear regularly as part of the competition for viewer attention. Traditional limitations on the amount of space in newspapers or the amount of airtime on television are no longer important given the huge capacity of the (p.172) online “news hole.” The unlimited time and space online has encouraged less gatekeeping, opening the doors to still more incivility.
Drawing conclusions about the overall extent of incivility on the Internet is difficult because of its mixed modes of communication, and its lack of clear boundaries. Indeed, most figures put the percentage of the Internet that has been indexed by Google as far less than one tenth of a percent. Currently, the political content that is consumed the most comes from mainstream, so-called legacy sources, the same news outlets that generate the print and television news that Americans have long consumed.29 Even in the realm of new media, old media sources still dominate for the moment. For this reason, if we characterize the Internet based on the content most people consume, it is probably no more or less uncivil than other media.
However, two forms of Internet-specific content have attracted particular attention as potential sources of incivility. These include partisan blogs and audience/user comments that are posted in response to news stories or commentary. Because of its mix of text, still photos, and audiovisual material, it would be atheoretical to make a blanket statement about the probable effects of incivility on the Internet. All else being equal, uncivil Internet content that is audiovisual should be expected to have effects like those of television. Quite a lot of televised incivility can be found on YouTube, where excerpts of especially hostile political encounters often get posted for those who missed them on air.
Other Internet content, such as audience comments, appears in the form of text, and should thus have more limited effects. Perhaps with the more extreme forms of incivility that sometimes occur in user comments, levels of trust should suffer, but it is difficult to say trust in precisely whom or what. The most logical answer might be trust in the political opposition, but based on my experimental evidence using print treatments, even more extreme incivility in print form did not affect recall or attitudes toward the opposition, although it harmed levels of trust in politicians and government.
Empirical evidence on this question is only beginning to emerge, and thus far it has been focused primarily on how incivility affects the credibility of online content.30 Other outcomes of interest have included risk perceptions, political trust, and political efficacy. For example, (p.173) Anderson and colleagues found that uncivil blog comments polarized perceptions of the risks of nanotechnology relative to civil blog comments, and Borah suggested that news frames may interact with incivility to affect trust.31
The jury is still out on whether the Internet promotes greater mass exposure to political incivility and/or whether such incivility has effects; evidence remains very limited at this point.32 But most of the studies that have examined the impact of incivility thus far have not included measures to establish that incivility was manipulated independent of other factors such as the partisan extremity of the communication source. This makes it difficult to know how much of any identified effect is style, and how much is perceived political substance. Is it the manner in which views are being exchanged that is important, or does the extremity of the views produce any given outcome? To isolate the effects of civility from political substance requires a manipulation check to ensure that incivility was manipulated and another check to demonstrate that the extremity of the political views was not altered in the process. In other words, only the manner of interaction should differ, not the perceived substance of the political views expressed. This latter point is especially critical because incivility in political discourse is frequently confounded with ideological extremity by observers and pundits. When advocates express viewpoints that are clearly in opposition to one another, it is easy to mistake extremity for incivility—particularly when one does not agree with the views being expressed!
Interestingly, incivility has become an even greater bête noire online than on television. The “notoriously unruly and rancorous” online public conversation has led many to question the value of online political dialogue.33 Its defining characteristic is “rampant incivility,” which is encouraged by the capacity to post comments anonymously.34
Although televised incivility on political talks shows has been widely decried in the past, on the Internet the problem has been viewed as even more severe. For example, reader-contributors to the websites of U.S. newspapers are frequently highly uncivil in their commentary.35 Likewise, uncivil YouTube videos provoke still more incivility in viewer commentary.36 Most of these complaints (p.174) are about the text-based comments made by audience members. As I have argued, even though this kind of online commentary often puts television shout shows to shame in its violations of norms of civility, I remain unconvinced that it has the same kinds of effects as videos where people treat one another uncivilly. Nonetheless, it probably draws attention.
Beyond audiovisual content that is produced by industry professionals to be accessed online, the Internet also attracts perhaps more than its fair share of amateur audiovisual incivility. The widespread availability of cell phone video recording allows virtually anyone to record and upload video for all to see. This component of new media means that more “back stage” behavior that was meant for a specific social context and audience will, nonetheless, be viewed by those outside of that context.37 For example, in the 2012 presidential race, Mitt Romney’s comment that 47 percent of voters paid no taxes was intended for an elite group of donors at a private fund-raiser. However, new technology brought what was supposed to be back stage behavior to the front stage of America. Once the video of this event was posted on the web, it could be seen by all and became fodder for political talk shows. Likewise, when Vivian Stiviano recorded Donald Sterling, owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, making remarks disparaging blacks, she transformed a private conversation into a public controversy. Because many incidents of incivility occur in private, and technology has made it easier for private individuals to create their own audio and video recordings, new media may make audiences cognizant of still more incidents of incivility than ever, thus furthering the impression that today’s public figures are less civil than their forerunners, who may have behaved quite similarly in private.
If the need for audiences were not enough to encourage incivility online, there is yet another incentive for incivility built into the structure of network-based communication. As mentioned in passing in Chapter 2, emotional arousal not only changes the way viewers process media content, but also makes them more likely to retransmit the content though their networks. Because arousal drives virality online,38 incivility in political content is increasingly important for a message to reach large audiences. Arousal produces attention to the original content of political discourse, but it also impacts the (p.175) breadth of a message’s distribution. Although there is no consensus as to whether positive or negative emotions are better at driving virality,39 it seems clear that messages generating strong affective responses lead to greater diffusion.40 Although this pattern is true offline as well as online, the Internet makes it much easier to quickly redistribute to millions.
The Viewing Experience
The nature of the audience’s experience matters, so changes in the audience’s perspective on uncivil content also matter in an age of new media. Not just what people watch, but also how they watch it is important. So how have new media altered this experience?
We know that people pay more attention to faces on larger screens,41 and that larger screens are more conducive to the kinds of effects I have documented.42 For example, attractive faces are viewed as even more attractive on larger screens.43 Likewise, incivility is experienced more intensely watching a large screen. Moreover, as Bracken and Botta note, “Most of the technological developments of television have moved the medium increasingly towards being more immersive or capable of grabbing viewer’s attention and keeping it. This trend is true for larger screens, surround sound, improved image quality, and higher numbers of pixels.”44
Although televisions of all sizes remain available, consumers have increasingly been purchasing larger televisions. Technological advances have made large sets more affordable. Although there are no figures on average consumer television size that have been consistently available since the advent of television, the best-selling models are known for most years.
As shown in Figure 7.6, screen sizes have increased significantly. Interestingly, although the “recommended viewing distance” for large screens is further away (and this might compensate for the larger image size), it seems unlikely that the size of people’s living rooms has kept up with the pace of increased screen size.45
Although the best-selling television size has clearly increased, more recent trends also include viewing video on small portable devices such as mobile phones, tablets, and iPods. Even though smaller (p.176)
screens are generally viewed from a closer distance, they seem unlikely to create the same sense of immersion as large screens. Not surprisingly, the sensation of being involved in the action one is viewing is reduced with portable consoles.46 On the other hand, much more of today’s viewing occurs without abrupt commercial interruptions, thus improving people’s sense of immersion.
Scholars studying virtual reality originally coined the term “telepresence” to describe the sense of “being there” when immersed in a mediated environment.47 This “illusion of non-mediation” produces reactions as if the viewer were in the actual presence of the people shown on the screen.48 Studies of the iPod suggest that smaller screen sizes also reduce sensations of spatial presence among viewers.49 In general, portable consoles evoke lower levels of physiological arousal when used for video games or movies, thus suggesting that one would experience less of an impact from incivility if viewed in this fashion.50 To summarize, studies suggest that while people like the convenience of small consoles, they generally prefer large screens.
(p.177) Personal computer screens also serve as popular viewing devices, and are in between these size extremes. Computer screens tend to be smaller than televisions, but they have also increased in size, and people tend to view them from quite close, thus filling their fields of vision more easily. So although technological trends have been toward images that increasingly look like the real thing and that are responded to by viewers as such, small screens may cancel out any differences in how viewers respond.
Overall, this discussion should make it clear that figuring out the implications of new technologies for in-your-face politics is complex. On the one hand, there is no reason to expect political incivility to abate anytime soon given the vast competition for audiences, the capacity for conflict to attract viewers, and the viral advantages of highly arousing video. On the other hand, changes in how people watch televisual exchanges of political views—on screens that are both smaller and larger, with technology that is continuously improving its ability to represent humans on the screen, and with greater control over interruptions—do not suggest a clear direction in terms of the extent to which viewers will feel themselves to be in political advocates’ faces.
If the medium indeed matters, as this chapter has demonstrated, then the visual content of television matters a great deal. This suggests that we should pay particular attention to situations where incivility is coupled with intimate visuals of political advocates because these exchanges are likely to do the most damage. In the chapter that follows, I further pursue the potential historical significance of in-your-face politics. I turn my attention next to how the visual component of politics on television has changed since the advent of television broadcasting, with a focus on how that content is likely to be experienced by its audiences.
My findings recommend leaving aside the historical debate over the tone of political discourse, because this may not be the most essential question to answer. Whether or not contemporary American politicians are more hostile toward one another, it seems clear that the way we as ordinary Americans experience their disagreements has indeed changed dramatically. The impression that political discourse has become more bitter and uncivil is fed by the way we now experience those disagreements.